Killing the Soviet Man: The Death Penalty in the Soviet Union, 1945-1991
Killing the Soviet Man is the first history of one of the most punitive yet unexamined policies of the post-Stalin criminal justice system: the death penalty. After World War II, countries around the world took steps to abolish the death penalty, yet the Soviet Union did the reverse. Khrushchev’s government did not extend the 1947 Stalin-era decree banning the use of the death penalty in times of peace. Rather, it reinstated capital punishment, hoping to reform or “tame” it in accordance with the tenets of socialist legality. The reforms shifted the death penalty away from the purview of the Communist Party to the jurisdiction of institutional experts far removed from the halls of political power: local prosecutors, police, forensic specialists, and judges, among others. Experts in command of legal-rational procedure, these specialists became intermediaries between the Soviet state and its people, responsible for overseeing the most politically and emotionally sensitive of judicial processes. The Soviet death penalty was thus at once the product of a system of procedures and routines and a highly contested intervention in life and death. By analyzing it, I hope to shed light on the interplay between law and morality, citizenship and subjectivity in postwar Soviet Russia.
Killing the Soviet Man draws on over a hundred unclassified death penalty files culled from the Moscow Regional Court’s archival collection. Much more than accounts of trial procedure, these case files offer wide-ranging commentaries on law, morality, and the Soviet government. In coming to terms with death at the hands of the state, ordinary people acquired legal knowledge and articulated new expectations and demands of their government. Innovations like the open courtroom, psychiatric review, and appellate procedure generated new opportunities for popular engagement with the Soviet government, ones that helped cultivate a dialogue between state and subject. Designed to gain the public’s trust, these reforms ultimately undercut state authority by providing ordinary people with a window into the complex and, as it turned out, dysfunctional workings of the Soviet state.
As I argue, Khrushchev-era reforms to the criminal justice system ultimately empowered Russians to take ownership of and manipulate the criminal justice system – and the death penalty process in particular – in order to secure their own interests. A new kind of Soviet identity, typically associated with late socialism, thus began to emerge as early as the 1950s. Yet, even more important shifts in popular attitudes towards state authority and official discourse took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating during Gorbachev’s tenure. Reforms designed to professionalize, depoliticize, and lend legitimacy to the country’s legal institutions inadvertently invited criticism of what came to be seen as a poorly managed and unjust criminal justice system. Throughout the 1980s and during Perestroika, popular hostility to state authority grew more acute and qualitatively distinct, giving rise to a legalistic, rights-based concept of citizenship that persisted until, and indeed outlived, the collapse of the Soviet state.
Research for this dissertation inspired an article with Cahiers du Monde Russe (April 2019), titled “‘We Can’t Shoot Everyone’: Supreme Soviet Discussions of Death Row Pardons, 1953‑1964.” This article, co-authored with Jeffrey Hardy and translated into French, analyzes how the most elite members of the Soviet Communist Party tried to reconcile socialist morality with their new commitment to socialist legality when pardoning death row inmates in the decade following Stalin’s death.
Tentative Title: Island on the Edge: From Communism to Capitalism on Sakhalin Island, 1984-Present
Island on the Edge explores the transition from socialism to capitalism in Russia during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Specifically, it centers on Sakhalin Island, situated directly north of Japan in the Sea of Okhotsk. During the 1990s, residents of Sakhalin endured not one but two revolutionary events: the collapse of communism and the discovery of oil off the island’s north east coast, both of which paved the way for the construction of the world’s largest integrated oil and gas project, the Shell-owned Sakhalin II. Having lost a communist welfare state, Sakhalin’s diverse population acquired a new one in the form of multinational corporations that gravitated to the island to capitalize on its natural wealth. My project seeks to answer the following questions: How did international human and capital flows affect these peoples’ lives? How did they respond as they witnessed their communities transform into company towns, their landscape into extraction zones, and their neighbors into dependents of foreign employers? Speaking to the themes of globalization, labor, political economy, and the environment in the late and post-Soviet space, this project seeks to understand how a community’s communist past shapes its capitalist present, how dramatic socioeconomic change unites or divides an ethnically diverse peoples who nevertheless share a common past, and how human agency can bolster or undermine systemic change on the local, national, and international level.
Sakhalin’s trajectory also enhances our understanding of the Asian Pacific Rim, a region whose people and energy resources have been drawn into the global economy in profound ways. How did the creation of a Free Economic Zone on Sakhalin Island shape Russia’s relationship with Europe, Japan, China, and the United States after 1991? How did the arrival of multinational corporations on Sakhalin bolster or undermine Russia’s reintegration into the global economy and international diplomatic table during the 1990s and into the present? My project recasts the Asian Pacific Rim region as a multi-continental zone whose economic and geopolitical value and vulnerability stems from political, social, and environmental processes both within and outside the control of the states and people that inhabit it.
In addition to my academic research, I have written and produced content for Time/LIFE, National Public Radio, Not Even Past, and PBS's Frontline/World. See a sample of my most recent work below.
Good Eggs: A Rare Look Inside the Soviet Caviar Harvest - Time
The Surprisingly Wild and Crazy Summers of Young Soviets in the 1960s - Time
See the Vintage Soviet Movie Posters That Were Also Political Tools - Time
How a Photographer Captured the USSR’s Dramatic Rise as the U.S. Economy Tanked - Time
How a Teenager Sentenced to Life in Prison Became the Involuntary Face of Reform - Time
Dancing for Gagarin: The USSR Celebrates the 'First Man in Space' - Time
Haute Couture and the Cold War: Dior in Moscow, 1959 - Time
How Wind Energy Can Power Desalination in Texas - National Public Radio (KUT)
How a New Study Links Earthquakes to Drilling Injection Wells - National Public Radio (KUT)
How Fracking, Drilling and Earthquakes Are Linked - National Public Radio (KUT)
Bike to the Future: Electric Bicycles Hit the Road in Austin - National Public Radio (KUT)
Russia: Island on the Edge - Public Broadcasting Station (Frontline/World)
A Towering Legacy - Social Science Matrix